Rozner: What a sad ending for Arlington Park

  • Exercise riders wait in front of the grandstand for their jockeys and other riders with the racing horses to come from the stables last week at Arlington Park.

      Exercise riders wait in front of the grandstand for their jockeys and other riders with the racing horses to come from the stables last week at Arlington Park. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/1/2020 1:49 PM

For anyone who has followed horse racing closely the last few decades, Thursday's news was hardly a surprise.

But it was no less devastating.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

During an investor earnings call, Churchill Downs Inc. -- which owns Arlington Park -- dropped a bomb on local horse racing fans. As reported by the Daily Herald's Christopher Placek, CDI boss Bill Carstanjen no longer sounded like a man threatening the future of the Arlington Heights palace.

He made it crystal clear that the Local Oval has no future in hosting ponies.

"The long-term solution is not Arlington Park," Carstanjen said. "That land will have a higher and better purpose for something else at some point.

"But we want to work constructively with all of the constituencies in the market to see if there's an opportunity to move the (racing) license or otherwise change the circumstances so that racing can continue in Illinois.

"We've been patient and thoughtful and constructive with the parties up in that jurisdiction, but long-term that land gets sold and that license will need to move if it's going to continue."

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The gambling bill that passed in 2019 was too late for Arlington Park. The track -- and all of Illinois horse racing -- needed a casino on property 10 years ago if it wanted to contend with states that offer higher purses and higher-quality racing. Many breeders, owners and trainers could not remain in Illinois and survive under the circumstances.

When the state finally passed a pair of gambling bills in 2011 and 2012, after decades of neglect, then Gov. Pat Quinn refused to sign them, despite the $500 million in revenue they would have produced. Even then it might have been too late, but at least horse racing with slots at the tracks would have had a fighting chance.

Instead, Illinois tracks were not allowed to compete with tracks around the country that had slots, not compete with Illinois casinos, and not compete with any restaurant or gas station that could install slots.

But a plant that's had regulated gaming since 1927 wasn't given the same privilege. Thus, the best horses left for greener pastures and a billion-dollar industry with 50,000 Illinois jobs across horse racing and agriculture was left to wither.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

You don't have to stretch the imagination to wonder what causes politicians to kill jobs and flush revenue, especially in Illinois.

So sad when you remember it was only a couple decades ago that Illinois horse racing was a major player in the game, and that the Chicago area once had more tracks than any other metropolitan area in the country.

Today, Churchill is the obstacle, now that it owns a huge chunk of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Given the massive expenditure for licenses and taxes for expanded gambling, not to mention infrastructure, Churchill decided against adding a sportsbook, slots or table games at Arlington, not needing to compete with Rivers only a few furlongs away.

So Churchill is also willing to let Arlington die, with little concern for the history, track, employees, patrons, community or horse racing in Illinois. To pretend otherwise is laughable. Having failed to get what it needed from the state when Arlington could have been saved, Churchill moved on and found another way to make money by purchasing 61 percent of Rivers.

Cynical and clinical in its approach, CDI fits right in with Illinois politics, and thus the spot the track is in now, with dreadful racing and no hope for the future.

Arlington Heights officials will complain now about what they're losing, but let's not forget how hard they once fought to keep slots and a casino out of the track. It was like the village was afraid Al Capone was going to walk through the door, so don't pretend now that Arlington Heights was on board with a casino all along.

What becomes of the 300 acres is very much up in the air, but one can imagine a combination of houses, condos and apartments with a new entertainment destination occupying prime real estate.

It was suggested here before the Cubs spent a billion dollars to renovate Wrigley Field that they ought to purchase Arlington Park and all its property to build a Friendly Confines replica, complete with all the restaurants, bars, hotels and profits.

Too late now.

The White Sox are stuck on the South Side through 2029 and the Bears on the lakefront until 2033.

What seems certain is there won't be horse racing.

"Long-term for Arlington Park, as we've explained on these calls and we've explained to the state, it doesn't work," Carstanjen said. "The economics don't work. It's not a viable solution. We'd like to give the state, given everything that's going on, an opportunity to help us find a better long-term solution."

Carstanjen would not commit to racing again next year, saying, "We're running the race meet right now and have an agreement to run a 2021 race meet if we elect to do so."

Which means the final race ever at Arlington Park could be run in two months with no fans on property, an unceremonious funeral for one of the grandest facilities ever to host a spectacular sport.

Hard to imagine a more gruesome and gloomy ending.

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